By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
During summers after the war, when he had stopped having nightmares, Fred Shiosaki would take his two children fishing. He rowed them all over lakes in Eastern Washington, hoping they would pick up his hobby. In the end, however, it was he who picked up something from them. His son, Michael, was a champion Dahlia grower. And after Michael left home, Fred continued to grow Dahlias and other plants.
It was this kind of humanity that had coursed through his life, from a young man in Spokane defending himself and his family from racial slurs, to a war hero who helped rescue a lost battalion during World War II against overwhelming odds, to a father who learned from his kids, and to a devoted public servant as a chemist and protector of the environment. Fred Shiosaki died peacefully on April 10 at the age of 96.
He is best known, and is one of the subjects of a newly-released book, for his participation in the rescue of a lost battalion of American soldiers.
During World War II, 120,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in concentration camps by the U.S. government. Despite this and other ongoing acts of racist persecution, a number of Japanese Americans formed their own battalion, the 442nd, to fight in Europe.
Often mistreated and recklessly sacrificed by superior officers, particularly during a battle in the Vosges Mountains, the 442nd became one of the most highly decorated units in American history.
Shiosaki had signed up voluntarily, against his parents’ wishes, leaving Gonzaga University, where he was studying chemistry.
When the 442nd arrived in Europe, it fought its way through Italy, defeating some of Hitler’s finest troops, according to an oral history compiled and written by John C. Hughes, chief historian for the Secretary of State’s oral history program in Olympia. Finally, it was ordered to the Vosges Mountains, which constituted the borderland with Germany proper. The mission was to rescue a battalion of Texans that had been hemmed in by Nazi armies with superior numbers and firepower.
No invader had ever made it through the Vosges—steep thick mountains dense with trees and snow, according to Hughes.
Shiosaki’s company started with 186 men. By the time they reached the top, ordered to charge through oncoming German machine gun fire, there were only 17 survivors left.
When he reached the top of the final hill, and the rescue of the lost battalion was imminent, Shiosaki heard someone crying. He looked down and saw a young German teenager wounded in the snow.
He had learned through long fighting that the only way to survive was to immediately kill the enemy.
If they saw you, they would shoot you immediately.
“Being shot at in real combat gives you focus, especially the first time, which scares the hell out of you. In the beginning, we were so dumb that we stuck our heads up too much. The Germans had some of the best snipers in the whole world. God, they were good shots! They’d put a bullet right in your forehead. Pow!” he told Hughes.
But he let the young German live.
“There’s this kid—a German kid, and he’s wounded. Just a teenager…I hope he had a long life. I remember that so vividly. People ask what it’s like to have to kill someone in combat. I had no self-doubts. It was either me or them. There was never any question when I drew a bead on somebody. It had to be one of us. Except that one time.”
Shiosaki was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
When he returned to Washington, he completed his degree in chemistry and was urged to go on to graduate studies. But he could not bear to be apart from his future wife, Lily.
“I’m in Seattle; she’s in Spokane. It was just an impossible situation. I couldn’t study!”
So he married and eventually found work as the city chemist for Spokane’s Health Department.
He was a lifelong advocate for the environment. He was the founding director of the Spokane Air Pollution Control Authority. He was recruited to oversee the environmental program of the Washington Water Power Company.
In 1990, Shiosaki was appointed to the Washington State Ecological Commission by Gov. Booth Gardner and chaired it through 1998. In 1999, he was appointed to serve on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission by Gov. Gary Locke. And he was instrumental in securing funds for a new Fish and Wildlife Department regional headquarters in the Spokane Valley, including a $1.9 million laboratory. The facility was renamed to honor him.
Fly-fishing was his way of unwinding after work. After long days, Shiosaki would retire down to his basement and tie flies as a way to relax.
But despite many summers of rowing his kids around lakes in his wooden row boat, while they sat in the back trolling their lines in the clear water, he was never able to transfer the passion to them.
His son, Michael, had learned gardening from his grandmother, Fred’s mother. He started with vegetables, particularly radishes, which sprang up after a week.
But it was also common, Michael said, for people to compete in fairs in Spokane with one type of flower.
Fred picked up gardening from him and it became a way the two bonded.
After Michael moved to Seattle, he would still return home every Memorial Day to help lay out his father’s garden. His father grew tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh corn, and pumpkins, which he would give away as jack o’ lanterns.
The book, “Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II,” about Shiosaki and several others, including the intense racism they encountered and their battles against Hitler’s armies, was released on May 11.
Michael, who was interviewed for the book and read several drafts and the final version, said he learned details about some of the battles he had not known before.
“He was of a generation where they kept everything inside,” he said.
“When I read the details of the battles, it allowed me to more fully realize how remarkable it was that my dad survived the war. Was it luck? Was it something else? It also made me wonder how he could witness such atrocities of war—the loss of so many of his friends and fellow soldiers and still be able to move on. Unfortunately we didn’t talk about it in any detail since by the time I’d read all this, my dad’s memory was pretty foggy. It also made me think about what I was doing when I was 18 or 19 or 20…not much in comparison,” he said.
“The book is a way my dad lives on… I feel very fortunate.”
The book is available on Amazon.
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.